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'This impacts your life forever': How 1 school district addresses students' racism charges

06:31 02 July 2020 Author :  

In August 2016, three school security guards surrounded Mariah Harvard at Buckeye Union High School.

The guards repeatedly asked her about the shirt she was wearing underneath her sweatshirt, she said. Nervously, Harvard tugged on the T-shirt beneath her hoodie. The black T-shirt had words in white that read, "Black lives matter," a nod to the movement started in 2013 calling for action against systemic racism. 

She'd started wearing the shirt to school a week earlier, but was asked by school administrators to stop after another student told her that "Black lives don't matter."

The demand didn't sit right with Harvard. So she gathered nine friends and walked out of class one morning in protest. Her stand made national headlines.

"It changed everything for me that day," she said. "Protesting ... it changed me completely."

People threatened to attack Harvard, she said. For a week, police officers sat outside her house late at night in case someone tried to hurt her. At a homecoming football game, another student accused her of defacing their Confederate flag, she said.

Four years later, now a student at Estrella Mountain Community College, Harvard has joined the crowds coming out to protest the deaths of Black men and women in police custody. And like other Black graduates of Arizona schools who spoke to The Arizona Republic, she is also reflecting on her own experience of systemic racism at her high school.

"This impacts your life forever," she said.

As police departments and corporations face public reckonings over systemic racism, schools, too, are confronting accusations of racism from current and former students and parents.

The Republic revisited more than a dozen racist incidents reported at metro Phoenix schools since 2016: Those incidents ranged from basketball spectators directing monkey noises at a Black player to students repeating the n-word over and over again in videos posted to social media.

And then there are some of the statistics.

Data shows that students of color are disproportionately disciplined in Arizona compared with white students, a trend that's all too common across the country.

Schools also fail to graduate Black students at the same rate as white students, according to state data, making a college degree difficult to achieve. Advocates say that schism is created by a school system that does not treat Black students fairly.

Students of color interviewed for this story said racism is embedded in the culture of schools across the Phoenix metro area.

Sometimes it is overt, like when a group of teens in a Gilbert school told Joe Gonzales' daughter that her skin was ugly.

In other moments, students felt singled out for being Black, like when a teacher pulled Evanjalees Foster out of a Mesa classroom during a showing of Huckleberry Finn and asked her if she was uncomfortable as the only black student in the classroom.

The students also said that solutions addressing racism did not come swiftly, if they came at all.

Some former students are calling on administrators to do more to fight racism in and out of the classroom, including addressing inadequate teaching about slavery and civil rights figures.

Leaders advocating for fair treatment of students of color said schools must go beyond adopting equity programs in order to truly eradicate racism in the classroom.

"We will definitely be asking the question 'How are you going to keep our children safe in school in light of these racial tensions?'" said Janelle Wood, with the Black Mothers Forum. "Your policies and your practices have in the past hurt our children."

'Nothing was being done'

Following the death of George Floyd, as protests continued in Phoenix and other American cities, Ankoma Juma Hopwood, a Mesa High School alum, posted on Twitter on June 3: "I can almost guarantee that any person of color that attended high school at mesa, mountain view, highland and too many more to name experienced racism from their peers in some way shape or form."

Hopwood, who is Black, asked graduates of East Valley-area schools to share their own stories of racism. Dozens answered.

For days, Hopwood posted their replies, sometimes posting screenshots of private messages and concealing the identity of the former students.

One person wrote that they'd heard the n-word from white students countless times, and the students were never really punished. Another wrote that Highland High students took videos of themselves in a cotton field singing "I'm a cotton-picking n----r."

The experiences they described weren't surprising to Hopwood.

Tyesha Saucedo attended Mountain Pointe High in Ahwatukee and graduated in 2015. Students brought Confederate flags to school, she said. Another student, she said, posted a photo of a swastika drawn on his arm and a racial slur. When she confronted the principal about the racist behavior, they told her they couldn't do anything about it, she said.

"After a while, I felt like I was fighting and fighting and fighting and nothing was being done," Saucedo said.

Megan Sterling, a spokeswoman with Tempe Union, wrote in a statement that "teachers and administrators have historically been limited in the disciplinary actions they can take in regards to content/pictures posted on students' social media."

Have schools addressed racism?

Parents and former students said they've repeatedly raised racist issues as a systemic pattern, only to receive underwhelming responses from school leaders.

But district officials say they're trying.

When Desert Vista High students spelled out the n-word in T-shirts in a photo, the circulated image garnered national attention and demands for change. Sterling wrote that Tempe Union has strengthened its harassment and bullying policy and hired a diversity and inclusion coordinator in 2016 in the wake of the incident.

But former Tempe Union students don't think the action was enough. The former students are now compiling data on how many students have been harassed while attending district schools. The alums are demanding swift procedures to deal with hate.

In 2018, Chandler parents crowded school district board meetings to protest racism in district schools, spurred by a video of junior high students chanting racist lyrics. One parent told board members, "You are rapidly on your way to being viewed as the most racist school district in America."

The district resisted parents' calls to punish students, but promised to hire a director of equity and inclusion to implement an equity framework in the district. Chandler hired Adama Sallu to lead equity efforts, but the decision to implement an equity program roiled some members of a conservative-led parents group, Purple For Parents.

The Kyrene School District, also in the East Valley, similarly implemented an equity program after parents complained that black students were being disciplined at higher rates than white students, confirmed by district data.

And students and parents say they didn't feel heard by their school districts when they raised issues of racism.

When Gilbert students bullied Gonzales' daughter for the color of her skin, the father said he'd faced the same kind of discrimination when he was a student in Gilbert. His daughter experienced racism all throughout her time in school, he said. She graduated this year.

Whenever Gonzales would bring his concerns to district administrators, he said they would brush those concerns off and reply that they'd talk to offending students.

"They didn't feel that it was extreme to them, but at the same time, it was affecting my kids," he said.

Monique Joseph, a Chandler parent, said black children and parents are often falsely dismissed as troublemakers. She recently penned an open letter to the school district urging educators to examine the unfair treatment black students receive in schools.

She wrote that her 6-year-old daughter has already had several incidents at Tarwater Elementary. At 5, Joseph wrote, her daughter was suspended because she kissed another child in the lunch line.

"They pulled my 5-year-old child from class in front of her peers, humiliated her, interrogated her and caused psychological trauma because she was doing what most 5-year-olds are notorious for doing," she wrote.

In an interview with The Republic, Joseph said her experience is not unique among Black parents.

"These are issues that are systemic and that cause tremendous damage to parents and children in public schools," she said.

Sallu, Chandler's equity director hired in 2018, said change will take time.

She has focused on training for all staff members, to help teachers realize and address biases impacting their treatment of students that they may not have realized they had.

"Schools are really a microcosm of society," she said.

Data informs her work as equity director, she said: Sallu looks at how many students of color are disciplined, graduation rates and enrollment in Advanced Placement classes. The district is tracking the data to assure students of color are getting the same opportunities as white students.

And teachers are listening, she said. More than 500 educators attended an equity symposium the district held last year.

But she knows there's more work to do. Black parents and students are in pain, she said.

"The pain is real," she said. "At CUSD, we hear their voice, we hear their pain. We're doing all that we can to ensure that the learning space we have here is honorable."

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